Despite their macabre associations, churchyards are not normally more liable to ghosts than anywhere else, for in normal circumstances churchyards are simply resting places which should not contain any restless spirits or echoes of a troubled past.
In Derbyshire, Repton village churchyard has certain distinctive features which make such echoes slightly more possible. The Church of St Wystan contains a unique Saxon crypt which is one of the most important surviving pieces of Saxon architecture in England. It dates from around 750 AD and contains the tombs of King Ethelbald of Mercia (757AD) and King Wiglaf (840AD). When Wystan (Grandson of Wiglaf) a Saxon prince, was treacherously murdered he was buried in the crypt with his ancestors. Soon after the crypt became a shrine where miraculous cures were claimed to take place.
Historians claim the site of the church was previously occupied by the Old Saxon Abbey, with a secret passage leading to Anchor Church nearly three miles away. As the capital of the Kingdom of Mercia, Repton had a fairly active history which culminated in 874 when the town and Abbey were sacked by Danes. The Abbey was completely destroyed, but the crypt partly survived to be rebuilt.
The area has had a varied history, but recorded curiosities do not begin to occur until much later.
Sir Simon Degee, travelling in Derbyshire in 1727 gives this account of an unusual story from an old labourer: “about 40 years since, cutting hillocks near the surface, he met with an old stone wall. When clearing it further, he found it to be a square enclosure of 15ft. In this he found a stone coffin, and saw in it the skeleton of a human body 9ft long, and round it one hundred skeletons of the ordinary size, laid with the feet pointing to the stone coffin. The head of the great skeleton he gave to Mr Bowes, master of Repton School. I enquired at this school and one of the present masters (who is the son of Mr Bowes) concerning the skull but it is lost; yet he says, he remembers the skull in his father’s closet, and that he often heard his father mention this gigantic corpse, and thinks that the skull was in proportion to a body of that stature. The present owner will not suffer it opened, the lady of the manor having forbidden it.”
This “grave” was in a field now covered by the northern position of the churchyard. It was eventually dug up again at the end of the 18th century, but this time only a confused jumble of bones was discovered.
Perhaps it is from this that the impression of a disturbing influence in the churchyard dates. At some time before the mid-19th century the villages are said to have gone searching with lanterns for ghosts and in 1861 a boy watching from a window in the neighbouring school, said that he had seen three white figures crossing the churchyard at two in the morning then vanish suddenly before his eyes. Could this be the ghostly figures walking the line of the secret pathway to Anchor Church?
Later a village gravedigger used to complain that when he was digging graves he was made uncomfortable by the spectre of a 17th century gravedigger who stood among the trees watching him. Another fascinating local belief is that a goblin type entity lives at the top of the church steeple. Scarcely less strange are the twisted figures which sometimes appear sitting on top of a gravestone in a wreath of smoke.
Across from the church is a cross, reputedly where Christianity was first preached in the Midlands in 653AD. Until the end of the 19th century regular markets and fairs took place in the area between the cross and the priory arch. It was here that in 1848 a man brought his wife, with a halter round her waist, and offered her for sale for a shilling.
Back in the churchyard is the grave of Frederick Wickham Railton who died aged 14 years and 8 months in 1853 while a pupil at Repton School. The grave houses the body of an uneasy spirit which has been known for the last 120 years as the ‘Gallery Ghost’.
The boy is said to have been murdered and his ghost makes its appearance on the night of the “senior steeplechase running race” and haunts the unfortunate winner: apparently in his lifetime Railton himself was notable as a good runner. The Gallery into which the boys’ bedrooms opened is in the top storey of the Repton School’s accommodation. It was here that Railton was made to run the gauntlet for some schoolboy offence, six times up and down the Gallery between assailants armed with towels and pillowcases. One of them and it is rumoured it was his own brother had tied an ink bottle in his towel and a blow from this struck him on the head and killed him.
As with many haunted towns, Repton has a strong link with religion and specifically the Augustine Abbey that now houses Repton School. With its strange mass grave that contained over two hundred and fifty skeletons, subterranean crypts and secret tunnels to it’s local folklore stories relating to unusual entity manifestations, Repton certainly seems to have a ‘field’ of strangeness. From its foundation the land has been interpreted as being a part of the borderlands of human belief, whether being deemed “holy” or “cursed”, through the last five hundred years since the reformation that field of belief has developed and entered modern society.
Ask any Old Reptonians about the ghost of young Frederick and they will know of a fellow pupil who allegedly witnessed the spectre, or stranger still may have seen one of the many entities said to haunted the area around St Wystan church.